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Controversy surrounds Van de Kamp's bakery development

October 11, 2010 |  1:13 pm


Is it well done or half-baked?

The latest thing to come out of Los Angeles’ landmark Van de Kamp’s bakery isn’t to everyone’s taste. The Los Angeles Community College District has completed a $72-million renovation to the Glassell Park home of the now-defunct Dutch-themed bakery that was known for its windmill-shaped cookies and Danish pastries.

But budgetary problems have prevented district officials from opening a college satellite campus at the four-acre site near Fletcher Drive and San Fernando Road as they had planned. Instead, they are leasing the location to a charter school and several job-training groups.

That has prompted critics to file a pair of lawsuits alleging that officials misused voter-approved bond money by pulling a bait-and-switch on local residents who had anticipated having a community college in their neighborhood. The college district denies it has done anything wrong and insists it still hopes to eventually turn the former bakery into a college campus. In the meantime, officials scheduled a grand opening ceremony for what they call their “Van de Kamp Innovation Center” on Wednesday.

Descendants of the bakery’s co-founders have been invited to attend. For architecture fans, restoration of the formerly abandoned bakery marks a significant milestone. Some had doubted the bakery’s Dutch Renaissance Revival-style headquarters with its distinctive Flemish gables, brick arches and tile roof could be saved. Built in 1931, the bakery resembled a 16th century Dutch row house.

It was designated historic by the city’s Cultural Heritage Commission in 1992. But baking operations ended there in 1990, and for the next 10 years, it sat empty, except for trespassing vagrants and gang members. In 2000, plans to demolish the bakery and replace it with a big box home improvement store and fast food restaurant were proposed. Preservationists protested that plan and a group called the Van de Kamps Coalition was joined by then-State Sen. Richard Polanco in attempting to find funding to acquire the site for an auxiliary college campus.

When the city refused to authorize the bakery’s demolition, planning for the college conversion began in earnest. Even though it has not become a full-fledged college campus, locals will come to appreciate what the college district has done for the area “once the community understands we’re here,” said Richard Arvizu, associate vice president of the nine-campus system.

A handful of Los Angeles City College courses are being taught during evening hours at the site and various non-credit nighttime community service classes are also being held, Arvizu said. During the day, the center is used by charter high school students and participants in several vocational-training programs. These include a youth employment services center run by the Catholic archdiocese, a City College job development service and a center that specializes in training for jobs in medical and green technology fields. The year-old Alliance Environmental Science and Technology Charter High School has an enrollment of about 300 ninth- and 10th-graders.

Adriana Barrera, deputy chancellor of the district, said City College officials discovered they did not have the money to operate a satellite campus at the bakery until after the renovation project was underway. Although construction bond money financed repairs and major upgrades to the original bakery building and paid for construction of an adjoining classroom building, that cash cannot legally be used to cover the $5 million or so a year that an auxiliary campus would cost to operate, she said.

Barrera blamed “the economic downturn” for what she described as City College’s “deficit situation.” She said the district’s plan is to rent the center out during the day for the next four years. After that, one of its other colleges will be tapped to operate the center as a satellite campus if City College can’t, Barrera said. The college district is in escrow to acquire adjacent property fronting San Fernando Road that will eventually be used for another classroom building, Barrera said.

That land now houses an El Pollo Loco, a Denny’s restaurant and an Auto Zone store. Those who are upset that the bakery site has not been turned into a satellite campus say college officials have misused taxpayers’ money and deceived the public. In the lawsuit filed in July, critics alleged that the college district improperly spent bond money to construct office space that it intended to lease to the city of Los Angeles so officials could then sublease to private entities. One of the lawsuits’ plaintiffs, community activist Miki Jackson, is a member of the Van de Kamps Coalition, which earlier helped fight the bakery’s proposed demolition.

She said the college district has “engineered the situation” so it could lease its property to the city. “There are layers of lies,” she asserted. “It started out with them sincerely wanting to build a college there. Then they decided to turn it into a tenant-based facility rented out to the mayor’s pet projects.”

The critics’ companion lawsuit contends that college officials failed to do a required environmental assessment of the bakery project when it changed its plans for the property. Others have also voiced skepticism over the bakery’s transformation.

College district trustee Mona Field earlier this year complained at a public bond oversight committee meeting that City College had “no master plan, no focused interest in handling or running” a satellite campus there.

“I’m very sorry, but frankly, it was a money pit. The doggone building was rotten,” Field said. “This was not a well-thought-out plan.” At the same February meeting, Polanco bemoaned what he described as “shenanigans” in the bakery conversion. “Who gets hurt by the bait-and-switch are the taxpayers who have supported the development of Van de Kamp,” he said.

College officials indicated they hope to win over critics at Wednesday’s 9:30 a.m. opening ceremony. There will be an exhibit of historic photographs of the bakery, and tours of the old building, as well as the new one, will be offered. District leaders will speak and introduce John K. Van de Kamp, a former attorney general and nephew of one of the bakery’s founders, and Richard Frank, son of the other founder.

Officials said they searched for windmill cookies to serve at the event but couldn’t find any.

-- Bob Pool

Photo: Budgetary problems have prevented Los Angeles Community College District officials from opening a satellite campus at the former Van de Kamp's bakery. Credit: Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times